FF Insights #701: Making trillion-dollar companies

July 25, 2022: Climate propaganda; The trouble with education’s ‘success formula’; Age of surveillance

Founding Fuel

[NCSA Mosaic. By Grant Hutchinson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via Flickr]

Good morning!

The role played by the Mosaic browser, created by Marc Andreessen and a fellow programmer, in the history of the internet is well known. Unlike many other browsers that were launched around that time, Mosaic integrated text and multimedia. But there is another reason why it scored over others. Walter Isaacson shares that story in The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

He writes: “When Andreessen saw the Web demonstrated in November 1992, he was blown away. So he enlisted an NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) staffer, Eric Bina, a first-class programmer, to partner with him in building a more exciting browser. They loved Berners-Lee’s concepts, but they thought CERN’s implementation software was drab and devoid of cool features. ‘If someone were to build the right browser and server, that would be really interesting,’ Andreessen told Bina. ‘We can run with this and really make it work.’

“For two months they engaged in a programming binge ... For three or four days straight they would code around the clock—Andreessen fuelled by milk and cookies, Bina by Skittles and Mountain Dew—and then crash for a full day to recover. 

“They were a great team: Bina was a methodical programmer, Andreessen a product-driven visionary.

“On January 23, 1993, with just a little more fanfare than Berners-Lee had indulged in when launching the Web, marca@ncsa.uiuc.edu announced Mosaic on the www-talk Internet newsgroup. ‘By the power vested in me by nobody in particular,’ Andreessen began, ‘alpha/beta version 0.5 of NCSA’s Motif-based networked information systems and World Wide Web browser, X Mosaic, is hereby released.’ Berners-Lee, who was initially pleased, posted a response two days later: ‘Brilliant! Every new browser is sexier than the last.’ He added it to the growing list of browsers available for download from info.cern.ch.

“Mosaic was popular because it could be installed simply and enabled images to be embedded in Web pages. But it became even more popular because Andreessen knew one of the secrets of digital-age entrepreneurs: he fanatically heeded user feedback and spent time on Internet newsgroups soaking up suggestions and complaints. Then he persistently released updated versions. ‘It was amazing to launch a product and get immediate feedback,’ he enthused. ‘What I got out of that feedback loop was an instant sense of what was working and what wasn’t.’

“Andreessen’s focus on continual improvement impressed Berners-Lee: ‘You’d send him a bug report and then two hours later he’d mail you a fix.’ Years later, as a venture capitalist, Andreessen made a rule of favouring startups whose founders focused on running code and customer service rather than charts and presentations. ‘The former are the ones who become the trillion-dollar companies,’ he said.”

Have a great week ahead!

Climate propaganda

In his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore points out the stark contrast between what scientists said about the climate crisis and what was being written in the popular media. BBC has a shocking story that shows it was no accident. BBC’s Jane McMullen writes:

“While most climate scientists agreed that human-caused climate change was a real issue that would require action, a small group argued there was no cause for alarm. The plan was to pay these sceptics to give speeches or write op-eds—about $1,500 (£1,250) per article—and to arrange media tours so they could appear on local TV and radio stations.

“‘My role was to identify the voices that were not in the mainstream and to give those voices a stage,’ Rheem says. ‘There was a lot we didn't know at the time. And part of my role was to highlight what we didn't know.’

“He says the media was hungry for these perspectives.

“‘Journalists were actually actively looking for the contrarians. It was really feeding an appetite that was already there.’

“Many of these sceptics or deniers have rejected the idea that funding from the GCC and other industry groups had any impact on their views. But the scientists and environmentalists tasked with repudiating them—arguing the reality of climate change—encountered a well-organised and effective campaign they found hard to match.

“‘The Global Climate Coalition is seeding doubt everywhere, fogging the air… And environmentalists really don't know what's hitting them,’ environmental campaigner John Passacantando remembers.

“‘What the geniuses of the PR firms who work for these big fossil fuel companies know is that truth has nothing to do with who wins the argument. If you say something enough times, people will begin to believe it.’”

Dig deeper

The trouble with education’s ‘success formula’

In The Indian Express, Avijit Pathak, a former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, reflects on the essence of education in an age of training factories that churn out students who can pass competitive exams. Those who pass these exams are considered successful, and India has in fact created a bunch of edtech giants promising to deliver this to students. 

Pathak writes: “As I reflect on the deeper meaning of studentship, I feel like demythologising these ‘success stories’. Yes, a student ought to have a sense of wonder in her eyes. It is only this wonder that can expand her horizon, activate her curiosity, and inspire her to enter the domain of science and poetry, history and geography, or music and carpentry. Likewise, with this wonder, a student ought to raise new questions—even disturbing questions that might unsettle the status quo.

“However, the irony is the prevalent practice of education characterised by regimented schools and utilitarian coaching centres kills these two qualities quite early in the life of a student. How can there be wonder if right from nursery classes the children of the aspiring class are instructed to internalise that everything has already been decided for them—say, ‘A’ means America, ‘I’ is IIT, and ‘M’ is MBA? Or, for that matter, how can they be encouraged to ask new questions relating to culture, ethics and modes of living, if they are continually pressurised to believe in the narrative of one-dimensional existence—to live is to be hyper-competitive; to live is to defeat others, and go ahead, and to live is to worship money? It is sad that the pattern of education we have normalised does not allow a flower to bloom; instead, it is only about ‘strategic learning’ and ‘success formula’.

Dig deeper

Age of surveillance 

(Via WhatsApp)

Warm regards,

Team Founding Fuel

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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